FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When it was mentioned to Tony Dungy that Bill Belichick is about to extend his own NFL record by taking part in his 40th playoff game as a coach, the first thing Dungy did was laugh.
“It’s so crazy,” he said, explaining his reaction. “I don’t even know how many I was in in my whole life -- not just as a head coach -- but a player and assistant coach, too. I don’t think it was 40. That’s an amazing stat.”
Belichick will put more distance between himself and Tom Landry (36) and Don Shula (36) in head-coaching playoff appearances when his New England Patriots host Anthony Lynn’s Los Angeles Chargers in an AFC divisional-round game on Sunday (1:05 p.m. ET, CBS).
In his second season leading the Chargers, this will be Lynn's second career postseason game as a head coach.
It will mark the biggest discrepancy in playoff games (40-2) and playoff wins (28-1) in NFL history, according to Elias.
The contrast in head-coaching playoff experience sparks a question: How much does it matter?
Dungy, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who is now a studio analyst for NBC’s “Football Night in America,” doesn’t believe it is a major factor because it’s not as if the 50-year-old Lynn is a stranger to the playoffs from his 17 prior seasons as an assistant coach.
As Rex Ryan’s running backs coach from 2009 to 2014, Lynn was part of one of the New York Jets’ most meaningful playoff victories -- a 28-21 victory over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 16, 2011.
“I can tell you this about Anthony: He’s not going to be intimidated by Bill Belichick, and a lot of coaches are. But Anthony is not intimidated by the devil,” said Ryan, the two-time NFL head coach now working as a football analyst at ESPN. “In fact, he’ll look forward to this matchup, and I think that’s the difference between Anthony and almost every coach. That’s just him.”
Ryan said he hired Lynn in part due to a recommendation from Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Parcells. Lynn had served as Parcells’ running backs coach with the Dallas Cowboys from 2005 to '06.
“I loved surrounding myself with tough people and tough-minded guys, and this guy is a legitimate tough guy,” Ryan said. “And he knows the game. He’s smart.”
Lynn will need to be at his best to match wits with Belichick.
“The thing that is always difficult playing against Bill Belichick, whether it’s playoffs or not, is you don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Dungy, who had 15 games of postseason experience as a head coach when his Colts first beat Belichick’s squad in the playoffs after the 2006 regular season.
“Ninety percent of the time, you play a team, it’s, ‘Hey, this is how they’re going to attack us. We saw them the last four weeks, we got the tape -- this is what they’re going to do.’ With Belichick and the Patriots, whether it’s a playoff game or a regular-season game, you’re probably going to have to go through the first quarter before you really know what they’re going to do. That’s unusual.
"Belichick is the best of all-time, so there's where the confidence lies in him. But Anthony Lynn is the best this year. I think Anthony has done the best job in the league." Rex Ryan
“I always told our teams, 'We have to wait to respond, so make sure we’re hanging in there through the first quarter, and then we’ll have an idea what they’re doing. Then we’ll adjust and be ready to flip the switch based on what they do.' That’s not easy to do, and that’s one of the advantages they have with smart players and multiple game plans and different ways to do things. They put a lot of pressure on you.”
Three-time NFL head coach John Fox, who now serves as a football analyst at ESPN, echoed remarks from Dungy and Ryan in downplaying the significance of the difference in head-coaching playoff experience.
A parallel can be drawn between Fox's own experience -- serving 12 years as an NFL assistant coach before landing a head-coaching job with the Carolina Panthers in 2002 -- and Lynn.
“I was in the playoffs as an assistant so much that I understood playoff football when I first became a head coach,” said Fox, who faced Belichick in Super Bowl XXXVIII and recorded his first win over him in the postseason in the 2013 AFC Championship Game with the Denver Broncos. “Back in that time, there were more guys who had been there and done that. I watched Chuck Noll prepare a team for the playoffs. At that time, he had four Super Bowl rings. I’m not saying I was smarter than anyone else, but I had that experience.”
Fox also pointed out that no head coach succeeds on his own, and Lynn was wise to surround himself with coordinators Ken Whisenhunt on offense and Gus Bradley on defense, each of whom have head-coaching and playoff experience.
Dungy said one easy mistake for a playoff coaching novice is pressing too hard.
“You can’t look at it and say, ‘This is the playoffs, I have to do this. I’ve got to do that. I’ve got to change.’ You have to be yourself regardless of who is on the other sideline,” he said.
“For me, I was in the playoffs as a player. I saw how Coach Noll approached it and then I was in the playoffs as an assistant with Marty Schottenheimer and Denny Green, so I got to see the approach and be in playoff games, even though I wasn’t the head coach. I was calling the defenses for Denny, and involved in it.
“It is a different atmosphere, and obviously there is a little different strategy when it’s win or go home. But I don’t think the fact this is Anthony Lynn’s second head-coaching playoff game is going to put him at a disadvantage.”
Ryan sees it similarly.
“Experience matters, but Anthony’s been doing this a long time. He was with me for six of those playoff games. Belichick is the best of all time, so that’s where the confidence lies in him. But Anthony Lynn is the best this year. I think Anthony has done the best job in the league,” he said.
“I always wanted to compete against the best and I know Belichick’s the best. To me, it’s like, ‘Hey, bring it on because I’m here to kick your ass.’ I think that’s the mentality Anthony is going to have. He’s way more tactful about it than I would be -- he’s smart, he won’t say anything in the media, but I couldn’t help myself because I believed it.
“To me, that’s it. I treated it like you’re walking into a fight and had no problem with that. Anthony is going to approach it that way, and his team will know where he stands. He’s going to be confident.”